Monday, September 22, 2008

In praise of melancholy

For most of my adult life I have agreed with the Buddha that the project in life is to eliminate unnecessary kinds of disappointment (dukkham), and I have understood that the best way to avoid disappointment is to reduce expectations. The principal teaching of Buddhism has always struck me as a comprehensive hypothetical claim: If one hopes to reduce disappointment, then it is a good idea to reduce expectations. Seeing the teaching in this way has given me the flexibility to decide which kinds of disappointment I am unwilling to have. There are some kinds I don't mind having. This raises the question: if one does not mind being disappointed about something, then is it possible to be disappointed about it? But that question does not interest me right now. What interests me now is which kinds of mental states usually called painful are worth the pain of having them.

Buddhist texts tend to have a standard list of disappointments: aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair. Modern psychology has other potentially disappointing psychological conditions: depression, anxiety, obsession and so forth. It could be argued that all these conditions are disappointing if one would rather not experience them. If one would rather not be old, then getting old is a vexation to the spirit. If one would rather not die, then the inevitability of one's death is unwelcome news—perhaps so unwelcome that one chooses to believe in eternal life. Of course, if that belief turns out to be false, and if one somehow learns that it is false, then one might be disappointed after all.

What I am interested in exploring here is a kind of painful psychological condition that is worth the pain or trouble of having it. It goes by various names, but the name I like best is melancholy. I use the term as it is used in one of my favorite books, Swamplands of the Soul: New Life in Dismal Places by James Hollis. Hollis, a Jungian analyst, argues that some of our psychological conditions that feel uncomfortable are also the conditions that are in the long term most productive. Among these uncomfortable psychological states is melancholy, which he sees as one of the most lively of the dismal conditions.

Melancholy can be seen as the condition that comes from the realization that life could be otherwise than it is, that with some effort the world could be significantly better, but that we keep missing the boat. Paul Simon wrote in his song “Train in the distance”: “The thought that life could be better Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.” That life is not better makes one sad. If the sadness is intense enough, it may put one into action to make things, or at least something, a little better.

If one does not feel quite a bit of melancholy during the election season in the United States, then one is perhaps not paying much attention. Perhaps no two people are melancholy for exactly the same reasons. My own personal melancholy comes from some of the following considerations.

  • I have a conviction that it would be possible for politicians to campaign by simply discussing what they think they would like to do and how they would like to do it. That is not what most of them do, however. Instead, they talk about such abstractions as character and leadership style, with a special emphasis on how their opponent seems to have bad character, bad judgment and an unappealing style.
  • Another thing that makes me melancholy is a strong suspicion that much of this campaigning, ugly as it is, is going to persuade people to vote one way or another, but their votes will not be counted accurately. (It may be worth taking a look at an interesting documentary called Uncounted). )
  • This year it makes me melancholy that millions of people are struggling economically and much of this struggle is being made worse by the reckless policies of corporate executives who have been running corporations that are now being bailed out; our government is apparently more interested in tending to the needs of billionaires than in providing security to ordinary people.
  • It makes me melancholy that there are still so many who believe that there is such a thing as winning a war. I would more content if everyone were capable of seeing that there are only losers in wars, that some losers are individuals who die or are injured or who can never look in life the same way after witnessing unspeakable barabarity, and some losers are nations, and that in some way or another every human being on earth loses something important every time there is an act of violence.
  • It makes me melancholy that very few people on earth are living economically and environmentally sustainable lives, and the inevitable result of all this unsustainability will be disasters that might have been avoided if we were not as a species so motivated by greed, hatred and delusion.

It is said that Buddhism walks on two legs: wisdom and compassion. Compassion in Buddhism is defined as an active response to affliction. If one does not see the sufferings and afflictions and pain and despair all around the world, then there is no hope of anything being done to provide relief. Relief will come only when enough people find their sadness unendurable. Without melancholy there can be no compassion.

There is a Quaker dictum that there is no point in praying for anyone unless one is willing to do what is necessary to improve their condition. If there is a God, and if God is responsive to the sufferings of beings as insignificant as humans, then surely the only way God can respond is by using our arms and legs and bodies and brains. Therefore, the most effective form of prayer is to be active in relieving whatever suffering is close enough to be evident. It is rarely necessary to look very far to find someone in need of relief from their suffering.

Melancholy is to be treasured, at least until it is no longer necessary to motivate us into action. There is no reason to believe that suffering is in such short supply that melancholy is not necessary to motivate one to try to relieve it.


Chikakane said...

Thank you. I am finding myself in a pool of melancholy for the first time in a while. This articled has helped me see where my despair has manifested from and has encouraged me to embrace my disappointments and use this energy to doing what I can to remedy them.